The outer inner life

[14 March 2006]

By Rob Horning

Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, an account of how the bourgeois public sphere went from a realm of “rational-critical debate” to a space for commercialized leisure, claims that “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner life.” According to Habermas, the public sphere, when it first took shape in the 18th century, was a realm modeled after the world of coffeehouse debate among men of letters, a place where authority was theoretically distributed equally among all members, who had equal opportunity to make the strongest case for their ideas, which would be judged according to the rationality derived from capitalist exchange and profit maximization. People appeared in this public space as private individuals, their individuality guaranteed by a home life that was entirely independent of the public sphere, in part because of the property these individuals commanded. But this concept of the public couldn’t hold; its own logic extended authority to the masses, who lacked the stake in the market to be disciplined by its concept of rationality and the power theat derived from owning means of production. The public sphere nonetheless assimiliated the mass, which undermined the separation of public life and private, intimate home life. As the state was asked to guarantee the status for the larger public, a status once conferred by property, the public sphere also takes on the socialization tasks to a greater extent; individuals are subjected to an “onslaught of exxtrafamilial authorities”—media, state institutions like schools, etc. Hence leisure masquerades as a private affair, but it is instead the “externalization of inner life,” as noted before.

That’s a lot of jargony abstraction to make this point: Our consumption choices are not innocent nor are they private, nor do they constitute us as individuals as we often dogmatically believe. Or if it does, it is a substantially different individuality that what it once was. No longer does it signal independence; instead individuality now signals dependence, the outer-directed life outlined by Reisman in The Lonely Crowd in which one’s sense of self relies on the perceptions of others, whether one is fitting in or making quasi rebellious attempts to stand out. Our inner life is now the opposite of private; it consists of the collection of consumer and leisure choices we make in order to appear as something, as anything, in the devolved and oversaturated public sphere.

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